Harlson said he would call for her and that they would go fishing. And they went.
The light is tawny upon the lily-pods in shady places on the river. And rods, such as are used for bass, are light upon the wrist, and, in the lazy hours of mid-afternoon, when bass bite rarely, demand but slight attention. And two people idling in a boat get very close in thought together and come soon to know each other well. And a ruthless young man of twenty and a tempestuous woman of thirty are as the conventional tow and tinder.
And there were books she had never read in Mrs. Rolfston's library—for she was not a woman of books—which interested Harlson, and it was easier to read them there than take them home. And Mrs. Rolfston waited upon him—how gifted is a woman of thirty—and he felt bands upon him, and liked it, and would not reason to himself concerning it.
And one night, late, came a panting servant—Mrs. Rolfston had no men, only two women domestics, with her in her home—to say that her mistress had heard some one evidently attempting to open a window on the piazza, and that they were all in fear of their lives, and that she had fled out of the back way to ask Mr. Harlson the elder, or his son, to come over at once and look around.
The father laughed, and said that, had there been a burglar, he must have fled already, and the young man, laughing too, said that some one must go anyhow, in all courtesy to defenseless women, and that if Mrs. Rolfston feared for her front porch, he would lie upon a blanket in the lawn beside it to set her mind at rest. He had not slept beneath the stars alone, he said, since the family had left the farm. And there was much laughing, and Harlson took home the servant girl, and she, growing bold as they approached the house, ran up the path ahead of him. The lawn between the better house and street in the lake country town is often a little forest, so dense the trees and their foliage. And added to the fragrance of the leaves in later midsummer are the mingled odors of petunias and pinks and rosemary and bergamot and musk, for all these flourish late. And the moon comes through the tree-tops in splashes, and there is a softness and a shade, and it is all like a scented garden in some old Arabian story, and the senses are affected and, maybe, the reason. Harlson went up the path, half dreaming, yet alive in every vein. There was no burglar visible, but a wonderful woman, in fleecy dishabille, was sure she had heard a sound most sinister, and endangered women must be guarded of the strong.
And Grant Harlson returned not home that night; yet the moon, shining through the trees, revealed no form upon a blanket in the garden.
And the summer days drifted by; and the young man fresh from college, full of ambitions and dreams, found himself a creature he had never known, a something conscience-stricken, yet half-abandoned, and with a leaden weight upon his feet to keep them from carrying him away from the temptation.
He would force himself to a solitary day at times, and go out into the country with dog and gun, and tramp for miles, and wonder at himself. He had all sorts of fancies. He thought of his wickedness and his wasted time, and compared himself with the great men in the books who had been in similar evil straits,—with Marc Antony, with King Arthur in Gwendolen's enchanted castle, and with Geraint the strong but slothful,—rather far-fetched this last comparison,—and of all the rest. It was a grotesque variety, but amid it all he really suffered. And he would make good resolves and, for the moment, firm ones, and return to town when the dew was falling and the moonlight coming, and the tale was but retold. And the woman was wise, as women are, and conscienceless, yet suffering a little, too.
She had found more than a summer's toy, and she had grown to fear the great boy in his moods, and to want to keep him, and to doubt the measure of her art. This must be a hard thing, too, for such splendid pirates to bear. They may not even scuttle all the craft they capture.
And the root of all evil is sometimes the root of all good. The dollar pulls all ways. Harlson must earn his way. One day his father dropped a chance word regarding some one, miles in the country, who wanted a fence built inclosing a tract out of the wood. It was isolated work, a task of a month or two for a strong man, a mere laborer. Young Harlson became interested.
"Why shouldn't I try it?" he asked.
His father laughed.
"It's work for a toughened man, my boy. You have softened with six years of only study."
The boy laughed as well.
"You needn't fear," he said. "All strength is not attained upon a farm, and I want to swing an ax and maul again."
And that day he set out afoot for the home of the man who needed a fence. He told Mrs. Rolfston briefly. She paled a trifle, but made no objection. He said he would make visits to the town.
THE BUILDING OF THE FENCE.
An ax, a maul, a yoke of oxen; these are the great requisites for him who would build a rail fence through a forest. Grant Harlson made the bargain for the work, hired a yoke of oxen, as you may do in the country, and secured the right to eat plain food three times a day at the cabin of a laborer. A bed he could not have, but the right to sleep in a barn back in the field, and there also to house his oxen for the night, was given him. He slept upon the hay-mow. He went into the forest and began his work. The wood was dense, and what is known all through the region as a black ash swale, lowland which once reclaimed from nature makes, with its rich deposits, a wondrous meadow-land. He "lined" the fence's course and cleared the way rudely through the forest, a work of days, and then he made the maul.
The mace of the mediaeval knight is the maul of to-day. No longer it cracks heads or helmets, but there is work for it. And it has developed into a mighty weapon. There are two sorts of maul in the lake country. As the stricken eagle is poetically described as supplying the feather for the arrow by which itself was hurt to death, the trees furnish forth the thing to rend them. Upon the side of the curly maple, aristocrat of the sugar bush, grows sometimes a vast wart. This wart has neither rhyme nor reason. It has no grain defined. It is twisted, convoluted, a solid, tough and heavy mass, and hard, almost, as iron. It is sawed away from the trunk with much travail, and is seasoned well, and from it is fashioned a great head, into which is set a hickory handle, and the thing will crush a rock if need be. This is the maul proper.
There is another maul, or mace, made from a cut of heavy iron-wood, a foot in length and half a foot in thickness, with the hickory handle set midway between iron bands, sprung on by the country blacksmith. This is sometimes called the beetle.
The beetle is a monster hammer, the maul a monster mace. Each serves its purpose well, but the beetle never has the swing and mighty force of the great heavy maple knot. Grant Harlson bought a seasoned knot of an old woodman and shaped a maul. He had learned the craft in youth.
The ash trees fell beneath the ax, the trunks were cut to rail lengths, and the oxen dragged logs through muck and mire and brush and bramble to the line of fence, and there the maul swung steadily in great strokes upon the iron and wooden wedges, the smell of timber newly split was in the air, and the heavy rails were lifted, and the fence began its growth.
And it was lonesome in the depths of the wood, for the black ash swale is not tenanted by many birds and squirrels as are the ridges, and only the striped woodpecker or a wandering jay fluttered about at times, or a coon might seek the pools for frogs. Harlson had circumstance for thought. Only the hard labor cleared his blood and brain, and helped him.
Could fortune come to him who had such a load upon his conscience? Was not he a violator of all law, as he had learned it,—law of both God and man? Had he an excuse at all, and what was the degree of it? He could not endure the time when it became too dark in the wood for work, and when he drove the jaded oxen out into the field and to the barn, and it was yet too early for seeking the hay-mow, which was of clover, and there seeking sleep. A clover mow is a wonderful sleep-compeller. There are the softness and fragrance, but, sometimes, even with that, he would be wakeful. To avoid himself, the young man would, at last, go in early evening to the older farmers' homes,—for it was his own country and he knew them all,—and there, with the sons and hired men, pitch quoits in the road before the house.
Quoits is still a game of farmers' sons, and the horseshoe is superior to the quoit of commerce and the town. The open side affords facility for aggressive feats of cleverness in displacing an opponent's cast, and the corks upon the shoes reduce some sliding chances, and the game has quality. And Harlson found rather a distraction in the contests. He found, maybe, distraction, too, in chatting with slim Jenny Bierce, who was a very little girl when he was in the country school, but who had grown into almost a woman, and who was a trifle more refined, perhaps, than most of her associates. She had a sweetheart, a stalwart young farmer named Harrison Woodell, one of the schoolmates of Harlson's early youth, but she liked to talk with Harlson. He was different from her own lover; no better, of course, but he had lived another life, and could tell her many things.
And Woodell, who expected to marry her, glowered a little. She did not care for that. Grant Harlson had not noticed it.
But neither quoits nor Jenny Bierce sufficed at all times for forgetfulness. Harlson was in the grasp of that enemy—or friend—who gives vast problems, and with them no solution. He could not rest. He read his Bible, but that only puzzled him the more, because there seemed to him, of necessity, degrees of wrong, and he could not find a commandment which was flexible. He chafed because there was no measure for his sentence.
A pebble at the rivulet's head will turn the tiny current either way, and so change the course of eventual creek and river. The pebble fell near the source in Grant Harlson's case, for never before in his life had he studied much the moral problem. His had been the conventional training, which is to-day the training which asks one to accept, unreasoning, the belief of yielding predecessors, and, until he felt the prick of conscience, he had never cared to question the inheritance. Now he wanted proof. If he could not plead not guilty, might he not, at least, find weakness in the law? Then fell the pebble.
It was only a country newspaper, and it was only the chance verses clipped from some unknown source which turned the tide that might have grown yet have run forever between narrow banks.
For the verses—who wrote them?—were those of that brief poem which has made more doubters than any single revelation of the hollow-heartedness of some famed godly one; than any effort of oratory of some great agnostic; than any chapter of any book that was ever written:
I think till I'm weary of thinking, Said the sad-eyed Hindoo king, And I see but shadows around me, Illusion in every thing.
How knowest thou aught of God, Of His favor or His wrath? Can the little fish tell what the lion thinks, Or map out the eagle's path!
Can the Finite the Infinite search! Did the blind discover the stars? Is the thought that I think a thought, Or a throb of a brain in its bars?
For aught that my eyes can discern, Your God is what you think good— Yourself flashed back from the glass When the light pours on it in flood.
You preach to me to be just, And this is His realm, you say; And the good are dying with hunger, And the bad gorge every day.
You say that He loveth mercy, And the famine is not yet gone; That He hateth the shedder of blood And He slayeth us every one.
You say that my soul shall live, That the spirit can never die: If He was content when I was not, Why not when I have passed by?
You say I must have a meaning: So must dung, and its meaning is flowers; What if our souls are but nurture For lives that are greater than ours?
When the fish swims out of the water, When the birds soar out of the blue, Man's thoughts may transcend man's knowledge, And your God be no reflex of you!
One night in after life I sat with Grant Harlson, in his rooms in a great city, and he told me of this, his time of doubt and tribulation, and repeated to me the poem.
"The questions it asks have not yet been answered, so far as I know," said he, "and I do not think they can be by the alleged experts in such things."
Then a sudden fancy seized him, and he broke out with a novel proposition:
"You have little to do to-morrow, nor have I much on my hands. Speaking of this to you has awakened an old interest in me and made me curious. Help me to-morrow. We'll make up now a list of twenty leading clergymen. I know most of them personally, and some of them can reason. We'll each take a cab and each visit ten, exhibiting these verses, going over them stanza by stanza, explaining the doubts they have aroused, and asking for such solution as the clergymen have, and such solace as it may afford. That will be rather an interesting experiment, will it not?"
I fell in with his whim, and the next day we made the rounds agreed upon.
What a curious thing it was! How men of various creeds felt confident and repeated the old platitudes, and would be anything but logical! How one or two were honest, and said they could not answer.
And how absurd, we said at night, the keeping of men to tell us what can no more be learned in a theological school than in a blacksmith shop, and in neither place as well as in the woods or on the sea! Yet there was no scoffing in it. We were neither irreligious.
To this young man building the fence there came a resisting mood, and he was puzzled still, but slept more pleasantly again upon his clover-mow. He was groping, but less despondent, that was all. It seemed all strange to him, for the old farm life had become largely a memory, and it was but yesterday that he was in college, one of a thousand, full of all energy and lightsomeness, and here he was alone in the wood as in a monastery, and all else was somehow like a dream. Only the oxen and the logs and the ax and the maul and the growing fence were real by day. But, in the evening, there was Jenny Bierce, and she was very real, as well as charming.
Ho wondered if she cared for him. She was apparently pleased when he found her, and they had taken long walks alone in the twilight. Once he had kissed her, and she had not been angry. What sort of drift was this, and why was he so carried by it? How different it all was from even the life of a few weeks ago! Then there came before his eyes a picture of the great, splendid animal in town, and it remained with him. It bothered him for many a day and night.
If the Hindoo king were right, if all were so undefined, why not do as did the birds and squirrels, and seek all sunny places? He could not work at his fence Sunday. He had not done that yet, but he would walk the miles Saturday night and spend his Sunday in the town.
As he thought, so he did. He did not swing the maul late the next Saturday that came, but took up his journey and reached home in early evening.
He had been absent but three weeks, yet his family had much to ask, and his father laughed at his hardened palms, and congratulated him. He changed his garb and took the way toward Mrs. Rolfston's. She had not looked for him sooner, though she knew men well, for she had seen his growing trouble and she knew his will. Her eyes blazed as might the eyes of some hungry thing to which food is brought. It was late when he reached his home again, and the next day he must read a book, he said, that he had found at Mrs. Rolfston's. At night he was stalking across the country again, to his couch on the dry clover; and he thought not even of the Hindoo king. Mrs. Rolfston's school of theology was not of the sort which worries one with puzzling things, and he had been in a receptive mood.
The next day he worked like a giant. In the early evening he found Jenny Bierce. She questioned him, but he had not much to answer.
"Is there some one in the town ?" she asked.
"There are several hundred people there."
"You know what I mean. Is there any one in particular?"—this poutingly.
He said that of late the only one, to speak of, he had found anywhere was a girl in a calico dress.
SETTLING WITH WOODELL.
So passed the days away. What added brawn came to the strong young fellow's arms from the driving of the rails and lifting them to place! Brown, almost, as the changing beech-leaves his face, and the palms of his hands became like celluloid. He was unlike the farmers, though, for he lacked the farmers' stoop—he had not to dig nor mow, nor rake nor bind. He swung his ax or maul, and commanded the red oxen in country speech, and deeper and deeper into the forest grew the fence. And, of evenings, he was with Jenny, and Sundays he was in the town. What days they were, with all their force, and health, and lawless abandonment, though in the line of nature. He drank not, nor smoked, nor ate made dishes. He was like an unreasoning bobolink, or hawk, or fawn, or wolf. But there grew apace the problem of Jenny.
One night, as the two were walking, each caught a glimpse of something dark, which moved swiftly through the bushes some distance from the road.
The girl started.
"What is the matter?" Harlson said.
"Did you not see it—that shadow in the bushes?"
"Yes. Some one was there. What of it? Some of the boys are coon-hunting."
"It wasn't that," she whispered. "I know what it was. It was Harrison Woodell, and he is watching."
"Well, he might be in much better business. Are you fond of him?"
"I like him very much," she answered, simply, "but sometimes I am afraid."
"He'll not hurt you. He dare not."
"But he may hurt you."
"Don't you think I can take care of myself?"
"Oh, yes"—hurriedly—"but one of you may get hurt, and I don't want anything to happen to either of you. Oh, Grant! You must be careful!"
He was impressed, though he did not show it. There may have been some of that magnetic connection, of which the scientists have told us so little, between minds tending toward each other, with sinister intent or otherwise, when all conditions are complete. Harlson felt in his heart that the girl's apprehensions were not altogether groundless, but, as was said, he was in perfect health and had a pride, and he cast away the thought and but made love. And he prospered wickedly. It was late when the girl reached her home again, and she went in tremblingly and silently. So bent had been their footsteps that neither Harrison Woodell nor other living thing could have been near them and unseen.
Down the tree-fringed roadway and across the field to the barn went Harlson, and wondered somewhat at himself. Into what had he developed, and how would it all end? He was elated, but uneasy. He was glad the fence was nearing completion, and that with the money due him life in the big city would begin. He clambered upon the clover-mow, and tossed about uneasily on the blanket upon which he had thrown himself still dressed. It was some time before he slept, and then odd dreams came.
He thought he had taken Jenny to the town, and that Mrs. Rolfston seemed always near them, yet in hiding. They could not get away from her. Then came a time when she had crept up behind them and over his head had thrown a noose, and was drawing it tighter and tighter and strangling him, and he could not, somehow, raise his hands to free himself. He was suffocating! He struggled in his agony and awoke—awoke to find his dream no dream at all! to feel a hand on his throat, a knee upon his chest, and to know that he was being choked to death!
More than once in later life Grant Harlson felt himself very near the line which men who have crossed once may not repass, but never later came to him the feeling of this moment. It was but a flash of thought, for the physical being's upheaval followed in an instant, but it was a flash of horror. Then began an awful struggle.
Borne down deeply in the yielding clover, Harlson had little chance to exert his strength, which, with that grip upon his throat, could not last long at most; but he writhed with all the force of desperation, and wrenched loose, at last, one arm, which had been pressed useless against his side. With the free hand he clutched his adversary's collar and strained at it, while he heaved with all his power to turn himself below. The couch was not far from the edge of the great mow, but of that he was not thinking, nor of the fact that the hay had, in the stowing away, been built out, so that the mow well overhung the barn floor. Well for him that it was so! There was a sudden loosening and sliding as the struggle in the darkness became fiercer, and then, parting from the mass, a section of the mow, a ton at least in weight, shot downward, carrying upon it the two men, who, as it struck the floor beneath, rolled from its surface through the great open doors, down the steep incline, up which wagons were driven on occasion, and leaped to their feet together, there in the clear moonlight.
They stood glaring at each other. Grant Harlson gasping, but himself again, as he inhaled the blessed air. Each stood at bay and watchful.
The man glared at him savagely.
"What does it mean! What were you going to do?"
"I was going to kill you."
"Then they would have hung you."
"No, they wouldn't; they would never have found you."
"Did you have a knife?"
"I didn't need one—if the cursed hay hadn't come away."
"What are you going to do now?"
"I'm going to kill you."
There was a look in the man's eyes which showed he was not jesting. Harlson thought very rapidly just then. He recognized the earnestness of it all, but his sudden terror was now gone. Here were light and air and even terms with the other. The effect of the choking had passed away. He felt himself a match for Woodell.
With the revulsion of feeling came then suddenly upon him a rage against this would-be midnight slayer so great that he was calm in his very savagery. He laughed, as was his way.
"You were very foolish. You should have brought a knife or club. Kill me! Why, man, do you suppose if you were to try to get away now I would let you go? I want you, you murderer, I want you!" And he reached out his hands toward the other and opened and shut them clutchingly; and then with a snarl Woodell leaped forward and the two men grappled like bull-dogs.
Well for Harlson was it that through all the weeks he had been swinging the maul and ax, and that his muscles were hard and his endurance great, for Woodell was counted one of the strong men of the region. As it was, in point of sheer strength, the two were about evenly matched, but there was a difference in their resources. One was gymnasium-trained, the other not.
In country wrestling there are the side-hold, and square-hold, and back-hold, and rough-and-tumble, the last the catch-as-catch-can of stage struggles. In early boyhood Harlson had learned the tricks of these, and in the college gymnasium he had supplemented this wisdom by persistent training in every device of the professional gladiators. He was there considered something better than the common. And this, though a life depended on it, was but a wrestling-match. It was but a struggle to see which should get the other in his power, and blows count but little in a death-grapple.
They swayed and swung together, but so evenly braced and firm that minutes passed, while, from a little distance, they would have seemed but motionless. All who have watched two well-matched wrestlers will recognize this situation.
In each man's mind was a different immediate aim. Woodell wanted Harlson on the ground and underneath him; he wanted his hand upon his throat, and to clutch that throat so savagely and so long that the man's face would blacken and his tongue protrude, and his limbs finally relax, and the work attempted on the hay-mow be done completely! Harlson had but one thought: to overmaster in some way his assailant.
There was a sudden change, a mighty movement on the part of Woodell, and in an instant the struggle was over.
Glorious are your possibilities, O pretty grip and heave, O half-Nelson, beloved of wrestlers! What a leverage, what a perfection of result is with you! What a friend you are in time of peril! Woodell, too bloodthirsty to feint or dally, released his hold and stooped and shot forward, his arms low down, to get the country hold, which rarely failed when once secured. And, even as he did so, in that very half-second of time, there was a half-turn of the other's body, an arm about his neck, a wrench forward to a hip, and, big man though he was, nothing could save him!
His feet left the earth; he whirled on a pivot, high and clear, and came to the ground with a force to match his weight, his body, like a whip-lash, cracking its whole length as he struck.
Stunned by the awful shock, he did not move. His adversary stood glaring at the still form for a moment, dazed himself by the sudden outcome, then dashed into the barn, came out with a harness throat-latch and a pitchfork, strapped Woodell's hands together, pulled them over his knees, and between the knees and wrists passed the long ash fork-handle. The man, slowly recovering his senses, was "bucked" in a manner known to any schoolboy; as securely bound as if with handcuffs and with shackles; as helpless as a babe!
INCLINATION AGAINST CONSCIENCE.
The shock had affected Woodell very much as what is known as a "knock-out" in sparring affects a man. Absolutely unconscious at first, he recovered intelligence slowly, though practically uninjured. Harlson stood beside the grotesquely trussed figure and watched the return to consciousness with curiosity. The cool night air assisted the restoration.
Woodell opened his eyes, seemed to be wondering where he was, and then, as realization came, made an attempt to rise. The effort was ridiculous, and he but flopped like a winged loon. The contortion of his face was frightful as there came upon him full understanding of his situation. He struggled fiercely once again, then lay quiet, looking up at Harlson with malignant eyes.
Harlson's fit of rage had gone entirely. There had come upon him a swift compunction. "Why did you try to murder me?" he asked.
"You know well enough, —— you!" came from between the teeth of the man on the ground.
"I do not. I can't understand it! Have I ever injured you?"
"Injured me? You dodging, lying thief! What are you quibbling for? You know just how you have injured me. Why don't you finish the thing? Get a club and knock out my brains! They won't hang you, for you can say it was in self-defense, and my being here will prove it. Do it! Have a complete job of what you have done this summer!"
The man, writhed in his ignoble position, and tears gushed from his eyes. Harlson reached forward and withdrew the pitchfork handle. Woodell scrambled to his feet ungracefully, for his hands were still strapped together before him.
"Look here, Woodell," said Harlson, "let us go to the road and walk down toward your place. I'll not unstrap your hands just yet. I think I'll feel a trifle more comfortable having you as you are. I want to talk with you. I want you to be fair with me. Was it because of Jenny Bierce?"
"You know it was."
"But why haven't I as good a right to make love to Jenny as you or any other man?"
Woodell turned fiercely: "More quibbling." Then in a tone of demand: "Tell me this: Are you going to marry her?"
Harlson hesitated. "I don't know."
"You do know! You know you haven't any idea of such a thing. You are just amusing yourself until you get your cursed fence built."
"What is that to you?"
"To me! She was engaged to be married to me, and we were happy together until you came; and you've come, broken up two lives and done no one any good, not even yourself, you hungry wolf! She cares more for me to-day than she does for you. She is better suited to me! But with your trick of words and your ways you tickled her fancy at first, and, finally, you charmed her somehow as they say snakes do birds. And she'll not be fit for anybody when you go away!" The big man sobbed like a baby.
Harlson made no immediate reply. Was not what Woodell was saying but the truth? Did he really care for Jenny or she for him? What had it been but pastime? He could give her up. It would be a little hard, of course. It is always so when a man has to surrender those close relations with a woman which are so fascinating, and which come only when there has been established that sympathy between them which, if not love, is involuntarily considered by each something that way. There was a struggle in his mind between the instinct to be honorable and straight-forward and fair, and to do what was right, and the impulse, on the other hand, to refuse anything demanded by an assailant. But the would-be murderer was not a murderer, after all. He was only a temporary lunatic whom Harlson himself had driven mad. That was the just way to look at it. As for Jenny, she would not suffer much. There had not been time enough. Not in a day does a man or woman have that effect produced upon the heart which lasts forever. So, were he to disappear from the affair, nothing very serious, nothing affecting materially the whole of any life would follow. The odds were against him, or rather against the worst side of him, in the reflection.
He acted promptly. "I don't know about it," he said; "I'm puzzled. I don't care much. I don't know just where I stand, anyhow. I want to be decent, but it seems to me I have some rights; I'm all tangled up. I don't think you imagine I am afraid—I wasn't when I was a little boy in school with you as a bigger one. You know that—and I'm not now. But that doesn't count. I've been studying over a lot of things, and I don't know what to do. I think you may be right, and that I have been all wrong. I give it up. But I do know that a fellow can't make any mistake if he tries to do what is right, and, in figuring out the thing, takes the side that seems to be against him. He can fight, he can do anything better after he feels that he has done that. Hold on."
Woodell stopped, wonderingly. Harlson unbuckled the strap about the man's hands and threw it into the bushes at the roadside.
The farmer straightened himself up, reached out his arms, clutched his palms together, and looked at the other man. Harlson spoke bluntly.
"Yes, I know you want to try it again. But, as I feel now, it could only end one way. I don't mind. I only wanted to loose you before I say what I wanted to say, so that you wouldn't think I was making terms on my own account."
"Go on," said Woodell, gruffly, still stretching his arms.
"Well, it is just this. I don't think I've been doing the right thing. I am going to leave Jenny Bierce to you. She will not care much, and it will be all right in a little time. That is all. No, not quite! You tried to kill me. Maybe I would have been as big a fool, just such a crazy, jealous man as you, if things had been the other way. I don't know. But I do know this, that your coming here to-night, except that it has made me think, has nothing to do with what I have made up my mind to. Here we are in the road. I don't want to sleep uneasily in the barn. You tried to kill me. I have tried to decide on what is right, and I will do it. Now, I want it settled with you. Here I am! Do you want to fight?"
Woodell's face had been something worth seeing while Harlson was speaking. He had followed the words of his late antagonist closely. He grasped in a general way the intent expressed. There was a radiance on his rough features.
"Do you really mean that?"
"Of course I do. What should I say it for if I didn't?"
"Then it will be all right."
"But do you want to fight?"
"No, I don't. I won't say you could lick me. It was partly luck before. I won't give up that way. But you might. That doesn't matter. I'm sorry I tried to kill you. I was crazy. You would have been, in my place. And you won't have anything to do with Jenny again? Oh, Harlson!"
And the two shook hands, and Harlson went back to his bed on the clover-mow. He thought he had done a great and philosophically noble deed—remember, this was but a boy little over twenty—and he slept like a lamb. And next evening he went over to Woodell's home and said he wanted some supper, and after the meal laughed at Woodell, and said he was going off to another farm to pitch quoits until it got too dark, and the two young men walked down the road together and exchanged some confidences, and when they parted each was on good terms with the other. This was strange, following an attempted murder, but such things happen in real life. And it may be that Woodell had the worst of the bargain in that conversation.
He was better equipped for the winning of Jenny, but the troubled man with whom he had been talking had reached out blindly for aid in another direction. Not much satisfaction was the result. Woodell was of the kind who, if religious at all, believe without much reasoning, but Harlson had repeated to him the reasoning of the Hindoo skeptic. Woodell had at least intelligence enough to follow the line of thought, and, in after time, when he was a family man and deacon, the lines would recur to vex him sorely.
And Jenny did not pine away and die because she saw little more of Harlson. He met her and explained briefly that they had been doing wrong, and that he and Woodell had talked. She turned pale, then red, but said little. Of the struggle in the night Jenny never learned. She inferred, of course, that her lover had gone in a straightforward way to Harlson, and that his demands had been acceded to. She was gratified, perhaps, that she had become a person of much importance. She thought more of Woodell and less of Harlson, because of the issue of the debate, as she understood it, and, when the first pique and passion were over, became resigned enough to the outlook. She had been on the verge of sin, but she was not the only woman in the world to carry a secret. Woodell's pleadings were met with yielding, and the wedding occurred within a month. Perhaps she made a better wife because her husband did not know the truth in detail, and she felt the burden of a debt, but that is doubtful. Though fair of feature, she was not deep enough of mind to even brood. Of course, too, by this standard should be lessened the real degree of all erring. Harlson, wiser, was much the more guilty of the two and deserved some punishment, but, as an equation, it could, at least, since he was young, be said in his defense that as he was to Jenny so had Mrs. Rolfston been to him. The person who had changed things was that same fair animal of the town.
And shallow-minded legislatures will enact preposterous social laws for the regulation of the morals of boys, and imagine they have placed another paving-stone in the road to the millennium, while the Mrs. Rolfstons are having a riotous time of it.
FAREWELL TO THE FENCE.
When the first frosts of autumn come the black ash swales are dry, and there is more life in them than in midsummer. Hickory trees grow in the swales, and the squirrels are very busy with the ripened nuts. The ruffed grouse, with broods well grown, find covert in the tops of fallen trees, or strut along decaying logs. There are certain berries which grow in the swales, and these have ripened and are sought by many birds. The leaves are turning slowly to soft colors. There is none of the blaze and glory of the ridges where the hard maples and beeches are, but there is a general brownness and dryness and vigor of scene. It is good. The fence was nearly done, and the money for its building was almost owned. The rails stretched away in a long line through the narrow lane hewed through the wood, the tree-tops meeting overhead, and a new highway was built for the squirrels, who made famous use of the fence in their many journeys. The woodpeckers patronized it much, and tested every rail for food, but only in a merely incidental way, for each woodpecker knew that every rail was green and tough, and sound and tenantless as yet. There was a general chirp and twitter and pleasant call, for all the young life of the year was out of nest and hole and hollow, and now entering upon life in earnest. It was a season for buoyant work.
The great maul, firm and heavy still, showed an indentation round its middle, where tens of thousands of impacts against the iron wedges had worn their way, and even the heads of the wedges themselves were rounded outward and downward with an iron fringe where particles of the metal had been forced from place. The huge hook at the end of the log chain was twisted all awry, though no less firm its grip. The fence, the implements and all about showed mighty work, something of mind, but more of muscle.
Most perfect of all tonics is physical, out-door labor, particularly in the forest, and it is as well for mind as body. It eliminates what may be morbid, and is healthful for a conscience. Why it is that, under most natural conditions which may exist, the conscience is not so nervously acute, is something for the theologians to decide,—they will decide anything,—but the fact remains. The out-door conscience is strong, but seldom retrospective.
Grant Harlson swung his maul and delighted in what was about him, and breathed the crisp October air, scented with the spice bushes he cut to clear the way, and pondered less and less upon the puzzles of the Hindoo king. His mood was all robust, and when he visited the town he was a wonder to Mrs. Rolfston, who was infatuated with the savagery of his wooing and madly discontent with the certainty that she must lose him. She made wild propositions, which he laughed at. She would remove to the city; she would do many things. He said only that the present was good, and that she was fair to look upon. And from her he would go to his other sweetheart, the great maul, and be faithful for six days of the seven. He did not work as late of afternoons now. He was enjoying life again in the old healthful, boyish way.
He had a friend from town with him, too—a setter, with Titian hair and big eyes, which slept on the clover beside him, and an afternoon or two a week he would take dog and gun and go where the ruffed grouse were or where a flock of wild turkeys had their haunts among the beech trees. He would announce, with much presumption and assurance, at some farm-house door, that he would be over for dinner to-morrow, and that it would be a game dinner, and that he would leave the game with them on his way back that same evening. There would be chaffings and expressions of doubt as to reliance upon such promise and "First catch your rabbit" comment, but they were not earnest words, for his ability as a mighty hunter was well known.
Craft and patience are required when the wild turkey is to be secured, for it is wise in its generation, and will carry lead, but it is worth the trouble, for no pampered gobbler of the farm-yard has meat of its rich flavor. Beech-nuts and berries make diet for a bird for kings to eat. And when Harlson brought a couple of noble young turkeys to the board the banquet was a great one, and the boys pitched quoits that night no better for it. A good thing is the wild turkey, but even a better thing, when his numbers and quality are considered, is the ruffed grouse, the partridge of the North, the pheasant of the South. How, in the lake region, he dawdles among the low-land thornberry bushes in autumn, how he knows of many things to eat beside the thorn-apples, and how plump he gets, and how cunning! How watchful he is, how knowing of covert, and with what a burst he lifts himself from his hiding-place and whirls away between the tree-trunks! How quick the eye and hand to catch him when he rises from the underbrush and is out of sight in the wood before the untrained sportsman stops him with what is little more than a snapshot, so instantaneously must all be done! Yet what a dignified thing is he, and how easy to find by one who knows his ways and what hold habit has upon his gray-brown majesty. Should the sudden shot fail, there is the fatal weakness of the bird of flying, as the bee flies, straight as an arrow goes, and of alighting high, say about two hundred yards away, and trusting to the trick which fools all other enemies to fool the man. Following the straight line of his flight, scanning the tree-tops, will you note at last, upon some great limb and close to the tree's trunk, an upright thing, slender, still-hued, silent and motionless. It is so like the wood it well might miss the tyro. It is not unsportsmanlike, it is in fair chase to shoot, and then there comes to the ground, with a great thump, the cock of the northern woods, and you have one of the prizes man gets by slaying. But this is only in the wood. In the open it is quite another thing. What a toothsome bird, too, is your ruffed grouse, how plump and yet gamey to the taste! You must know how to cook him, though. He must be broiled, split open neatly and well larded with good butter, for not so juicy even as the quail is the ruffed grouse, and he must have aid. But, broiled and buttered and seasoned, well, what a bird he is!
There were woodcock, too, in the lowlands, and Harlson found with them such buoyant life as we men find in sudden death of those small, succulent creatures. To stop a woodcock on the wing as it pitches over the willows is no simple thing, and he who does it handily is, in one respect, greater than he who ruleth a kingdom. And, at the table—but why talk of the woodcock? There are other game birds for the eating, good in their various degrees, but the woodcock is not classed with them. In him is the flavoring drawn by his long bill from the very heart of the earth, the very aroma of nature, and all richness. They ate peacocks' brains in Caesar's time. Later, they found there was something greater in the ortolan, and in some of the similar smaller things which fly. But as the ages passed, and palates became cultivated by heredity, and what made all flavors became known, the woodcock rose and was given the rank of his great heritage—the most perfect bird for him who knows of eating; the bird which is to others what the long-treasured product of some Rhine hillside or Italian vineyard is to the vintage of the day, what old Roquefort or Stilton is to curd, what the sweet, dense, musky perfume of the hyacinth is to the shallow scent of rhododendron. Even the Titian-haired setter recognized the imperial nature of the woodcock, and was all emotion about the willow-clumps.
Of course, from one point of view it is absurd, to thus depart from a simple story upon the killing or the cooking or the flavor of a bird. But I am telling of Grant Harlson and the woman he later found, and it seems to me that even such matters as these, the sport he had, and the facts and fancies he acquired, are part of the story, and have something to do with defining and making clear the forming knowingness, and character, and habits and inclinations of the man. Between him who knows old Tokay and woodcock, and the other man, there is every distinction. Harlson had learned his woodcock, but the Tokay was yet to come.
And the fence neared its end. The young man almost regretted it, eager as he had become to test his strength in the great city. Physically, it was grand for him. What thews he gained; what bands of muscle criss-crosses between and below his shoulders! What arms he had and what full cushions formed upon his chest! That was the maul. How he ate and drank and slept!
The days shortened, and the hoar frosts in the early morning made the fence look a thing in silver-work strung through the woods. Where the oxen had stepped in some soft place were now, at the beginning of the day, thin flakes of ice. Even in the depth of the clover-mow the change of temperature was manifest, and Harlson slept with a blanket close about him. The autumn had come briskly. And the last ash was felled, the oxen for the last time scrambled through the wood with the heavy logs, and for the last time ax and maul and wedge did sturdy service. One day Grant Harlson lifted the last rail into place; then climbed upon the fence, looked critically along it, and knew his work in the country was well done. He was absorbed in the material aspect of it just then. It was a good fence. Fifteen years later he strolled one afternoon, cigar in mouth, across the wheat-field where the wood had been, and inspected the fence he had built alone that summer, away back. The rails had grown gray from the effect of time and storms, and a rider was missing here and there, but the structure was a sound one generally, and still equal to all needs. It was a great fence, well built. He looked at the wasting evidence of the great ax strokes upon the rail ends, and said, as did Brakespeare, when he visited the castle of Huguemont and noted where his sword had chipped the stairway stone in former fight; "It was a gallant fray."
There was the getting of pay—the selling of a Morgan yearling colt sufficed the owner of the land for that—and the end of one part of one human being's life was reached. He went to town again and lived there a week or two. A life not held in bonds, but somehow under all control. It was curious; he could not understand it; but, even in the wood, he had out-grown Mrs. Rolfston. He was with her much. There was no let nor hindrance to their united reckless being, but all was different from the beginning. He was not selfish with her; he grew more courteous and thoughtful, yet the woman knew she could not keep him. There were stormy episodes and tender ones, threats and tears, and plottings and pleadings, and all to the same unavailing end. Your woman of thirty of this sort is a Hecla ever in eruption, but becoming sometimes, like Hecla, in the ages, ice-surrounded. She has her trials, this woman, but her trials never kill her. The rending of the earth, earthy, is never fatal. She recovers. With her, good digestion ever waits on appetite, though an occasional appetite be faulty.
And one day Grant Harlson left the town, his face turned cityward. The country boy—this later young man of the summer—was no more. To fill his place among the mass of bipeds who conduct the affairs of the world so badly and so blunderingly, was but one added to the throng of strugglers in one of men's great permanent encampments.
A RUGGED LOST SHEEP.
The journal of Marie Bashkirtseff is a great revelation of the hopes and imaginings and sufferings of a girl just entering that period of life when woman's world begins. Many upon two continents have been affected by the depths and sadness of it, yet it is but a primer, the mere record of a kindergarten experience, in comparison with what would be the picture showing as plainly a heart of some man of the city. Did you ever read the diary, unearthed after his death, and printed in part but recently, of Ellsworth, the young Zouave colonel, who was slain in Alexandria, and avenged on the moment, at the very beginning of the great civil war? That is a diary worth the reading. There is told the story of not alone vain hopes and ungratified ambitions, but of an empty stomach and dizzy head to supplement the mental agony and make its ruthlessness complete. There were, too, the high courage which was sorely tested—and an empty stomach is a dreadful shackle—and the bulldog pertinacity which ever does things. That was a diary of real life, with little room for dreams, and much blood upon the pen.
It befell Grant Harlson to learn how helpless in the great city is the man as yet unlearned in all its heartlessness and devious ways and lack of regard for strangers, and the story of Ellsworth was very nearly his.
It was well enough at first. He had some money, and had occupation at a pittance, intended only by the law firm with whom he was a student to serve for his car or cab-hire when on service outside the office. His privilege of studying with the firm was counted remuneration for his services, and he was, so far as this went, but in the position of other young men of his age and value under such circumstances, but, unlike others, he had relied upon the law of chance to aid him.
One hundred dollars does not last long when one is healthy and has a mighty appetite, and, that gone, two dollars and fifty cents a week, and hard work for it, is very little to live on, and Harlson found it so. Not for all the comforts of the world would he have written home for aid in the town. It seemed there was nothing for him to do. It had become mid-winter, and the winter was a cold one. Gaunt men followed the coal wagons or visited the places where charity is bunglingly dispensed by the sort of people who drift into smug officials at such agencies as naturally as some birds fly to worm-besprinkled furrows for their gleanings.
Harlson saw much of this, and knew his fate was not the worst among so many, and it aided him in his philosophy, but he had a mighty appetite. He was a great creature, of much bone and brawn, and being hungry was something he could not endure. He thought—how far back it seemed—of the farmers' dinners, and the turkey and ruffed grouse and woodcock. Woodcock! Why, his whole two dollars and fifty cents would not feed him for a single time upon that glorious bird! He looked through the fine restaurant windows, and it amused him. His own meals were taken in restaurants of a poorer class. With thirty-five cents and a fraction to live upon for a day, one does not care for game.
Harlson's dress became of the shabby genteel order. The binding upon coat and vest had begun to show that little wound which is not wide nor deep, but is past the healing, and the shininess at knees and elbows reflected the light that never was on land or sea, or, at least, ought not to be. He felt a degradation with it all, though it was with him the result of folly, not of fault, and he made a struggle for reform in his finances. He abandoned the cheap room in which he lived, and slept upon the office floor at night, the place in decent weather being moderately warm.
The individual from China and the individual from more than one other land, who comes to live with us, can exist on thirty-five cents a day and think his provender the fat of the land. But he is not a great meat-eater. The fiber of him is not our own. His style of tissue was not fixed in northern bay and fjord and English and Norman forests, and his ancestors transmitted to him a self-denying stomach. He can live in the city upon thirty-five cents a day, and clasp his hands across his abdomen and say, with the thankful, "I have dined." Not so the man of Harlson's type, and of his size. The sum of two dollars and fifty cents, the young man found, would not feed and clothe him for a week. He was a boy still, in the freshness of his appetite, yet his demands in quantity were manly, to a certainty. Six feet of maul-swinging humanity had eaten much, even in midsummer. That same six feet required more now, when the temperature was low and the system needed carbon. Perhaps he got all that was good for him; it is well to train down a little occasionally; but Harlson wandered about sometimes with a feeling of sympathy for the wolf of the forest, the hawk of the air, and the pickerel of the waters, all hungry ever and all refusing to live by bread alone.
As time passed this condition of things wore upon the man. His fancies, if not morbid, became a trifle ugly. He worked feverishly, but he chafed at his own ignorance of city ways, such that he could not increase his income. He sought manual labor which could be done at night, but failed even in this, for at that time he lacked utterly the way about him which fits the city, and persuades the man of business when there is little labor to be done. It was almost a time of panic. He would wander about the streets at night like a lost spirit. Sometimes he would meet old college friends. He had classmates in the city, some of them well-to-do and well established, and they were glad to meet him, the man who had done a little to give the class its record, and he was invited to swell dinners and to parties. He would but feign excuses, and to none of them told bluntly, as he should have done, just what his situation was, and how a trifling aid would make his future different. He was very proud, this arrogant product of the old Briton blending and the new world's new northwest, and he lacked the sense which comes with experience in the bearings of a life all novel, and so he remained silent, and, incidentally, hungry.
It was at this period of his career that Harlson was in closest sympathy with the sad-eyed Hindoo king. He was not doing anything out of the way; he was working hard, with clean ambitions, yet he was hungry. He could not understand it. No doubt an empty stomach inclines a man to much logic and the splitting of straws. There comes with an empty stomach less of grossness and more of abstract reason, and an exaltation which may be all impractical, but which is recklessly acute.
"I want to do things, I want to help others—I don't know why, but I do—I have ambitions, but I try to make them good. I am doing the best I can with the brains I have. I get up in the morning from the office floor and do my utmost all day, and try to do better when I get out, but nothing helps me! Where is the God who, it is said, at worst, helps those who help themselves.
"'You say that we have a meaning; So has dung, and its meaning is flowers.'
"The Hindoo king must be right. I am, we all are but like horses, or trees, or mushrooms; and it is only some sort of accident which makes each thing with life successful or unsuccessful, happy or unhappy, as the case may be."
So, at this time, Grant Harlson reasoned, blindly, yet in his heart there was something which protested against his own deductions and kept him in the path which was straightforward, and from staking all the future on the morrow. So drifted away the days, and this strong-limbed young fellow became hungrier and hungrier, and more shiny at knees and elbows, and more lapsided of foot-gear, and more thoroughly puzzled at, and disgusted with, the city world.
Sometimes the young man would resolve that in the morning he would abandon all his plans, and seek the country again, and there, where he could hold his own and more, live and die apart from all the feverishness and chances of another way of living. And he would awake and sniff in the morning air, and say to himself that he was a cur last night, and that he would stay and hold his own, and, in the end, win somehow. The bulldog strain asserted itself, and he was his own again. At night, after a fruitless day, he might become again depressed, but the morning restrung the bow. Sometimes—these were his weaker days—he would abandon all effort, and seek the free public library, and there plunge into books and find, for the passing time, forgetfulness. These were his only draughts of absolute nepenthe, for at night he dreamed of the yesterday or of the morrow, and it marred his rest. The library gave him, for the time, another world, though it had harsh suggestions. He would stop his reading to wonder how Chatterton felt when starving, or if Hood had as miserable a time of it as alleged, or if Goldsmith was jolly when, penniless, he argued his way through Europe, or if even Shakespeare went without a meal. But the library, on the whole, was a solace and a tonic. It rested him, since it made him, for a time, forget.
It was but characteristic of Harlson that, in the midst of all this test of endurance of a certain sort, he should do what deprived him of all chance of greater ease and greater vantage-ground with time expended out of the line he had established. One of his old college friends, guessing, perhaps, his real condition, came to him with an offer of what was more than a fair income, if he would teach one of the city's high-schools. The hungry fellow only laughed, and said that was not on his programme. He still went hungry and grew more shabby in appearance, and then came to him what was, perhaps, a sear upon his life—perhaps what broadened, educated, and made him wiser.
THE STRANGE WORLD.
One night Harlson, with a great appetite, as usual,—for he had not eaten since his scant breakfast,—went out to get his supper. It was not dinner, for he never, at that time, dined. He had in his pocket twenty cents. The next day he would get his usual weekly stipend. He would spend fifteen cents, he thought, upon his supper, then return to the office to sleep, and would have five cents remaining for the morning meal. That would do to buy buns with, and he would endure what stomach clamor might come until evening, when he would be a capitalist, and riot in all he could eat, even though he doubled a cheap order.
So he reasoned, as he went down the garish street, and looked right and left for some new restaurant, for he chanced to want a change. One's love for cheap restaurants is not perpetual. A mild illuminated sign over a small building attracted his attention. It had the aspect of what would be cheap, but clean.
Harlson entered the place and found what he had looked for. There was the small front room with scattered tables, the partition at the back, reaching but half way to the ceiling, with the usual curtained door, and there was no one in the room. He took a seat beside one of the tables and there waited. He had not long to wait. The curtains parted and a woman entered. The woman who came into the room was possibly thirty-five years of age. She was strong of frame, though not uncouth, and had keen, laughing gray eyes, heavy eyebrows and chestnut hair. She was a half jaunty, buxom amazon, with a brazen, comrade look about her, and was evidently the proprietress of the place. She came to where Harlson was seated and asked him what he wished to eat. The patron of this restaurant was studying the bill of fare intently. He wanted to get what was, as Sam Weller says, "werry fillin," at the price, and yet he had certain fancies. He looked up at the woman and said, bluntly:
"I have only fifteen cents to spend. What would you advise for the money?"
For the first time the eyes of the two met. Harlson was interested in the fraction of a second. In the fraction of a second he knew that it was not a restaurant pure and simple that he had entered, for he had learned much already in the city. The woman who looked at him was not merely the proprietress of a place where food was sold.
The woman did not answer at once. She was looking at the customer. She pulled out the chair opposite him and sat down.
"Have you lived here long?" she said.
Harlson had been so isolated, that to have an inquiry made in relation to his personal affairs seemed droll. It seemed something like humanity again, as well.
He studied more closely the woman opposite. She did not convey any idea of a creature of innate dishonesty or treacherous character. She had the appearance of being a shrewd, merry, healthy sinner. He forgot that she owed him an answer as he met her question:
"No, I have not lived here long, but I am as hungry as if I had lived here for half a century. What shall I order?"
She looked at him curiously. His language was not of the kind she had been accustomed to. She measured him from head to heel, while he noted her examination and was amused, and showed it in his face. She blushed, or rather flushed, and measured him again. Then she told him what he should order most wisely for the sum he had named. He was surprised at the quantity and quality of it.
The woman, meanwhile, had left him without further comment. As he was ending his meal, she came in again and took the seat in front of him.
"You are hungry," she said.
"I was, decidedly. I'm not now."
She looked him over.
"You have spent only fifteen cents. What is the matter?"
He was surprised. He looked into her eyes and was perplexed. Why should this woman ask him this question? But he could see nothing in those eyes save a gray inquisition.
"I had only that much to spend to-night, that's all. Do you see anything absurd about it?"
The woman was puzzled in turn. She looked into the man's face in a fearless way enough, but did not know what to say. Then again came that odd way of looking over him. Finally she broke out:
"You haven't any more money, and yet you put on airs. I like it."
"I am much obliged," said he.
"That isn't fair. You know what I mean. And you know already—you're not a fool—what this place is. It is mine. The little restaurant in front is but a part. Women come here—and men. Two women live here. Did you think that?"
Harlson said he had inferred, since he came in, that the restaurant was not a restaurant alone.
"It's a funny world," he said.
She was bothered. "I don't know what you mean about the world, and I don't care. But I would like to know what your business is, and how you are doing?"
"I am not doing well, and get hungry sometimes. Had it not been for that I should not have come here to-night. But what is it to you?"
"Can't you see? Why am I talking to you?"
"I don't know."
She looked at him steadily again.
"What do you want?" was his inquiry.
"Where do you live?"
"I have no bed. I am in a lawyer's office. I can't afford a boarding-house just now, and I sleep on the office floor."
"How do you like that?" she asked.
"I don't like it."
"Then why do you stay there?"
"Where else would I sleep? I have only so much a week."
"Would you like to stay here to-night?"
"Maybe. This is better than the office floor; at least I imagine it is."
The curtains parted and there was a heavy step upon the floor. A man came in. He stopped and looked at the couple grimly. He was a big man whose cheeks had jowls and whose eyes were red. He had the air of a bully. He seemed perfectly at ease and conscious of his status, and the woman started, then looked up half anxiously and half defiantly. The man spoke first:
"What are you doing here?"
"I am talking with this gentleman at the table."
"You mustn't talk with these fellows. Get out of here!" he said, turning to Harlson.
Harlson was not really in a pleasant frame of mind; he had been too hungry. It was not the occasion on which a flabby bully should have thus addressed him. He did not answer the man, but turned to the woman.
"Is that your husband?" he asked.
"What is he, then?"
It was the intruder who answered, violently:
"She belongs to me, and you'd better get out of here."
"I don't belong to him! He has lived here, but I want to get away from him! Now," turning recklessly to the man, "you may do what you please!"
The man paid little note to what the woman said. His attention was bestowed upon Harlson.
"Look here, young fellow! Get out of this, and get out quick! You're in the way!"
Now, upon this young man Harlson, during this conversation, had come a certain increased ill humor. He was in no violent mood, as yet, but he was not, as has been said, one for a big flabby brute to thus annoy. He was quiet enough, though.
"I've come into a restaurant to get my supper."
The man's red face became redder still. "If you don't get out, I'll throw you out!"
Harlson stood up. "I'll not go!" he said, and then the man rushed upon him.
It was only a clean, quick blow, but there was no check nor parry to mar its full effectiveness. The man plunged forward too confidently, the blow caught him fairly in the face, on the fullness of the cheek, just under the eye, and those bronzed knuckles cut in to the bone. It was a wicked blow, and its force was great enough to hurl the whole body back. The man whirled away under it, and he went toppling down, with his arms thrown up wildly. As he fell, he pitched still further back, in his effort to save himself, and his head struck the wainscoting as he reached the floor. Blood gushed from his cut cheek. It was a moment or two before he clambered slowly to his feet.
"Shall I hit you just once more?" was Harlson's query.
The man did not answer. The woman stood looking on curiously, but saying nothing. Harlson waited for a time, then told his assailant to go away; and the man picked up his hat and stumbled out upon the street.
The woman sat down again. It was some time before she spoke.
"You are strong, and will fight," she said.
"I had nothing else to do."
"Do you want to stay here?"
"It is better than the office floor."
"Will you stay here?"
He hesitated. It was a turning-point in his life, and he knew it. There was something rather startling to him in it.
Then came the swift reflection: He wanted to know all of life. This was the under-life, the under-current, of which reformers prate so much and know so little. Why not be greater than they? Why not have been a part of it, and in time to come speak knowingly? He was but a part of this world, as accident had made it. He hoped if the world wagged well to be a protector for certain weak ones. It was a world wherein immediate brute force told. Well, he could supply that easily enough. And what would he not learn? He would learn the city, the ignorance of which had resulted in his being hungry—he, a young man college-bred, and with some knowledge of Quintilian's crabbedness, or the equations of X and Y in this or that or the Witch of Agnesi. And were not these people part of the world, and was not this life something of which he ought to know the very heart?
Still, there were relations of things to be considered. There were people at home, and it would not do.
Then, just as he turned to refuge the woman who sat looking at him, the curtains parted again and a face appeared. It was the face of a woman, not of the world about him. It was some accident, some sinister, unexampled happening, which had brought the face to the surroundings. It gave to the wavering man a new idea of this world of shame and sin, and it may have been the deciding ounce.
THE REALLY UGLY DUCKLING.
He turned, to the woman across the table: "All right; I will stay."
I am but telling the story of a man of whose life from this time for two years I know but little. He was always reticent about these years, yet always said he had no occasion to regret them. With the life's outlines, though, with what it really was, aside from details, I became, in a degree, familiar.
What does the average person in one class know of the life in another? There are "classes," certainly, with great bars between them here, though this is a republic, and all men and women are supposed to be free and equal and alike in most things. There are lower and wider grades of existence, such that the story of them may never be told save in patch-work or by inference, yet which have as full a history, and where there are loves and hates and hopes and despairs as deep as are ever felt in the mass where the creed-teachers and Mrs. Grundy and the legislatures are greater factors.
And of this more reckless, hopeless people Harlson learned much. With them he was; of them he could never fully be. The extent to which a man is permanently defiled by pitch-touching cannot, of course, be known. It depends upon the pitch and upon the man. It was not a quiet life the young man led! On the contrary, it was a very feverish one, for he labored hard in the office by day—he never for an instant abandoned his ambitions and his plans—and at night he drifted into the land where were warmth and light and lawlessness. He had his duty there, such as it might be, for he was both a gambler and a protector, and, young as he was, callow as he was, within a year he had become one in demand, no trifler at the table, and an object of rivalry among those whose regard means fee of body and of soul. He, himself, at that time, did not appreciate the remarkable nature of his changing. So rapidly he aged in knowledge of all undercurrents that he passed into full maturity without a comprehension of the change. It is said that some Indians teach their children to swim, not by repeated gentle lessons, but by throwing them into a deep stream recklessly, saving them only at the last moment. So had some power hurled Grant Harlson into the black waters, and he had not drowned, and had taken rank among strong swimmers.
It is, as I have said, difficult to write intelligently of this portion of this man's life. I want to do him justice, for I have always cared for him; yet, from the conventional point of view, at least, nothing can excuse his lapse at this one time. He should have continued starving, I suppose, as have so many others, and have either died or won, as they did, instead of tasting all that is denied, and gaining much knowledge of the world, of much use in the future, all at the expense, perhaps, of that purity attaching to certain ignorances, as much in the man as the woman, since between the sexes all things are relative.
There were enough odd things in this most odd career. There were friendships and feuds with those who were of the lower multitude morally, but who were politicians and had their followings. There were romances of the order which makes the story of Dumas such a success upon the stage, and risks and escapes enough to satisfy the hungriest of romance-readers. It was all grotesque in its grim reality, and the young man did not know it. He was an unconscious desperado, and the odd thing about it all was the ease with which he led the double life.
In the morning, clear-headed and competent—for he did not drink at all of liquors—he appeared and was resolute at his work. He was becoming more and more considered. That he, somehow, knew the town so well, was in his favor. More than one case of importance was decided in another way from which it might have been, because of his knowledge of the outcasts and their connections, and how they had been used or trifled with on this occasion or on that one. He was zealous and studied furiously, and in the mere letter of the law became most confident. His examination was a trifling thing, and, once admitted to the bar, he did not remit his efforts. He was valuable to the firm. He was their watch-dog, and he suggested many things.
One day the senior partner called Harlson in, and a long conference was held. The younger man was offered a partnership on condition that he would make a specialty of certain branches of the firm's varied practice; but the offer had its disadvantages. It was not in the line political at all, but in one with vexatious business demands and requisites; yet it was accepted in a moment. And within the next week all the wicked, nervous night-life was abandoned, all the friendships formed there put upon probation, all the soiled sentiment made a thing to be ended surely and forgotten, if possible.
There were some wrenches to it all. Camille learns to love sometimes, and Oakhurst, the gambler, does not want to part with one who has stood a friend in an emergency. But Camille knows that, for her, few flowers are even annual, and Oakhurst is practical and a fatalist.
From that day, all his life, Grant Harlson kept away from close touch with this ever-existing group who live from day to day because they have been branded and do not care. Good friends he ever had among them, but they never claimed him, though, on many occasions, the men served him. They recognized the fact that he had never been more than an adopted wanderer among them, and rather prided themselves upon him. In later times he would occasionally exchange a word or two on that old life with some one who had grown outwardly respectable, with some one-time thug, later saloon-keeper and alderman and what may follow, and would be reminded of what happened on the night when the mirrors were all broken, and the Washington woman shot the man she was seeking, or when "we did the Coulson gang;" but it had long grown to seem unreal and dreamlike. He grew away from the memory, and there was no glamour to him in what might attract some other men to evil-doing, because to him there could be no novelty. He was a past-master in the ceremonials of fallen, reckless human nature, and the ritual bored him. He deserved no credit further than that. True, he was but young when he learned the rites, but that he was not still a member of the order was only because his ambition was dominant and his tastes had changed. That his will was strong, that he had tastes to develop, was because of the blood which filled his veins, and of nothing else. He had gone with a current absolutely, though swimming and always keeping his head above water until he swam ashore. Yet, as told in the beginning of this chapter, he always said to me that he did not regret this experience of abandonment. And he became a man seeking place and money.
He liked to visit his old home, and was faithful to his old crony, his aging mother, still; and, for a time, after any of these sojourns among the birds and squirrels and in the forest, he would be distrait and preoccupied with something; but all this would wear off, and then would come the press for place and pelf again. He was not entirely unsuccessful, and finally he married, as a prospering young man should—married a woman with money and presence for a hostess, and with traits to make her potent. He lived with her for a season, and found another, without his dreams and sympathies and understandings, but with a will and a way.
I do not care to tell the story of it,—indeed, I do not know it,—but the man learned the old-fashioned lesson, which seems to hold good still, that for a really comfortable wedded life a little love, as a preliminary, is a good thing always—usually a requisite. The woman lacked neither perception nor good sense. It was she who proposed, since they were ill-mated, they should live apart, and he consented, with only such show of courtesy as might conceal his height of gladness. There were money features to the arrangement made, and it was all dignified and thoughtful. The world knew nothing of the agreement, though that generation of vipers, the relations of Mrs. Grundy, wondered why Mr. Harlson's wife and he so lived apart, and if either of them were opium-eaters, or dangerous in insane moods. The relations of Mrs. Grundy have the reputation of the universe on their hands, and, the task being one so great, they must be pardoned if they err occasionally.
From the day he was alone, Grant Harlson appeared himself again, and I speak knowingly, for I was with him then. His old self seemed then restored. The buoyancy of boyhood was his as it had never been to me since we were young together. It matters not what a chance,—this is a land where all men drift about,—but I was in the city near him now, and the old relationship was resumed. We rioted in the past of the country, and we visited it together. As time went on, Harlson seemed to forget that he was, or ever had been, a married man, and eventually the woman found other things in life than awaiting old age without social potency, and suggested, from a distance, that the separation be completed. Perhaps there was another man. I know that Harlson did not hesitate. He responded carelessly, and then reverted to things practical.
The reflection came that the mismated in this present age must ordinarily bear the burden to the end. Collusion, which in such case is but a term for a mutual business agreement, is not allowable. The social problem is a puzzle the solution of which is left to those whose ideas were given to them stereotyped. The separation was delayed, but was, vaguely, a thing possible. And Harlson laughed and threw out his arms, and made friends of many women.
They were the variety of his life, which else was a hard-working one. He was not a saint nor a deliberate sinner. He but drifted again.
"EH, BUT SHE'S WINSOME."
"Eh, but she's winsome!"
Grant Harlson entered my room one evening with this irrelevant exclamation.
I have remained unmarried, and have learned how to live, as a man may, after a fashion, who has no aid from that sex which alone knows how to make a home.
Harlson, at this time, had apartments very near me, and we invaded each other's rooms at will, and were a mutual comfort to each other, and a help—at least I know that he was all this to me. I have never yet seen a man so strong and self-reliant or secretive—save some few who were misers or recluses, and not of the real world—who, if there were no woman for him, would not tell things to some one man. We two knew each other, and counted on each other, and while I could not do as much for him as he for me, I could try as hard. He knew that.
"Eh, but she's winsome!"
He went to the mantel, took a cigar, and lit it, and turned to me indignantly:
"You smoke-producing dolt, why are you silent? Didn't you hear my earnest comment? Where is the trace of good behavior you once owned?"
"She, I tell you! She—the girl I met to-night. And you sit there and inhale the fumes of a weed, and are no more stirred by my announcement than the belching chimney of an exposition by the fair display around it!"
"You big, driveling idiot, how can I know what you are talking about? You come in with an obscure outburst of enthusiasm over something,—a woman, I infer,—and because the particular tone, and direction, and mood of your insanity is not recognized within a moment, you descend to personalities. If your distemper has left you reason enough for the comprehension of words, sit down and tell me about it. Who's winsome? What's winsome? And have you been to a banquet?"
"There is a degree of reason in what you say—that is, from the point of a clod. I'll tell you. I've met a woman."
"I dare say. There are a number in town, I understand."
"Spoken in the vein of your dullness. A person not sodden with nicotine and dreams would have recognized the fact that I had met a Woman, one deserving a large W whenever her name is spelled, a woman of the sort to make one think that all poems are not trickery, and all romances not romance."
"What's her name?"
"Do you suppose I'll tell you, you scheming wife-hunter! If I do, you'll get an introduction somehow, and then you'll win her, for I'm afraid she has good sense."
And Harlson laughed and looked down in the brotherly way he had.
"But this is nonsense. Why don't you tell me something about her? Is she fat and fifty and rich, or bread-and-buttery and white-skinned and promising, or twenty and just generally fair to look upon, or twenty-five and piquant and knowing, or some big, red-haired lioness, or some yellow-haired, blue-eyed innocent, with good digestion and premature maternal ways, or——"
"Rot! She's a woman, I tell you!"
"All right. Answer questions now categorically."
"How old is she?"
"Twenty-seven or eight."
"Ever been married?"
"How do you know?"
Harlson looked surprised, and then he became indignant again.
"Alf," said he, "you have good traits, but you have paralysis of a certain section of your brain. You don't remember things. Don't you think I could tell whether or not a woman were married?"
I did not answer him off-hand. I could not very well. He knew that his reply had set me thinking of many a curious test and many a curious experience. Harlson had an odd fad over which we had many a debate.
It occurred usually upon the street cars. He would make a study of the women in the car when we were together—it seemed to amuse him—and tell me whether they were married or not. He would not look at their hands—that would be a point of honor between us—but only at their eyes, and then he would say whether any particular woman were married or single, and we would leave it to the rings to decide.
Sometimes he would lose, but then he would only say: "Well, if she didn't wear a wedding ring she should have done so," and would pay for the cigars we smoked.
He had some sort of fancy about their eyes which I could never quite understand. He said that a woman who had been very close to a man, who had been part of him in any way, had nevermore the same look, and that the difference was perceptible to one who knew the thing. I tested him more than once, and I found that he had never actually failed. Sometimes the woman with the look had proved unmarried, but there were facts that made the difference.
One night Harlson and I were wandering about the city, mere driftwood, after a dinner, and our mood carried us into the haunts of those without the pale, not that we cared for any new emotion or excitement, but that we wanted to look at something outside the commonplace. To me there might be, of course, some novelty in the things that might confront us, though to Harlson they were, at their utmost, but a reminiscence. We went where a man alone was not in safe companionship, but there were enough who knew my companion well, and all was curious to me, without even the spice of care for self.
It chanced that at one period of the wandering, very late at night, or, rather, early morning, Harlson became hungry, and insisted upon entrance to a restaurant where were gathered the very refuse of the reckless and non-law-abiding, and I went with him, perforce, and saw a motley gathering. There were all sorts of people there, from thief to pander, all save those who might retain a claim to faint respectability. Harlson demanded comparative cleanliness at our table, and the food was fairly decent. We ate, then smoked, and looked about us.
I have seen many people, and many strange faces, but never such a person nor such a face as of an old woman who sat at that early hour of the morning at a table near us. The figure was a warped and withered caricature, the face that of a hag, a creature vixenish and viperish, and mean and crafty. It was the face of a procuress of the lowest and most desperate type, of a deformed she-wolf of the slums, of the worst there is in all abandoned human nature, and Harlson was as interested as I was disgusted and repelled. He noted the woman closely.
"By Jove! look there!" he said.
"What is it?"
"Look at her hand."
I looked. I saw a hand which was a claw, a strong, shriveled thing with long, dirty nails and a vulturous suggestion. It was not a pleasant sight. On the third finger of the left hand, though, was a slight gleam amid the carnivorous dullness. There was a slender band of gold there, a ring worn down to narrowness and thinness. I turned to Harlson, but he spoke first:
"Do you see that old wedding ring?"
"It's queer. It's good, too. There's a streak of what was good left in everything, it seems to me. I'm going to talk to her."
"Don't do it. She'll throw the plate in your face."
"No, she won't." And he rose and went over to the table of the beldame and sat down beside her. She looked up at him glaringly. He did not smile, nor, apparently, make any apology or excuse, but began talking to her, looking at the ring, and saying I know not what. And I watched that miserable old woman's face and wondered. There was more than one emotion shown—fierce resentment at first, then the half fear of the hound or the hound-bitch yielding to the master, and then the yielding of the heart, not touched, perhaps, for a quarter of a century. Harlson talked. The woman did not speak for minutes, then made some short reply, and then, a little later, there were tears in her old foxy eyes.
He rose, glared at the one or two hard-faced waiters who had ventured near him, and took upon a card something she said. Then he came back to me as the old woman left the place.
"Queer-looking, wasn't she?" he said.
"Decidedly," said I. "What were you talking about?"
"Oh, nothing but the ring. It's wonderful how they always wear the ring when they have the right to."
"But what was the use of it all? What came of your talk?"
"Nothing to speak of. It was only a fad of mine. I have a right to an occasional whim, haven't I? I'll be hanged if I'll see a wedding ring worn that way buried in unbought ground. The old hag was a marvel of all that is unwomanly and sinful. But that ring shall be properly buried, and the hand that wears it, because it does wear it. So I'm going to take the woman out of this and put her where she will not have to be a monster in order to live."
And he did what he said he would do. He found a place in some old women's home for that aged demon, and one day he made me go with him to see her. Maybe it was the different dress and the different surroundings, but, it seemed to me, her eyes were not as they were in the low restaurant. The hand that wore the thin gold ring was clean in its pitiful shrunkenness. The creature looked neither hunted nor hunting. She was but an old woman going to the grave so near her, and going, I could not but imagine, to find the one who had given her that gold circlet some half century ago. I rather fancied Harlson's fad. As for him, when I told him so, he only said:
"Oh, of course. Peter told the third assistant bookkeeper to credit Harlson with such or such an amount." And he added; "If those people don't take good care of that old woman there'll be a new superintendent." But they took good care of her.
This is lugging in an incident at great length as an illustration, but I know of no other way to explain how Harlson so expressed himself when I asked him how he knew whether the woman of whom he had been talking was married or not. He felt confident enough.
"Well, what is she like? Can't you describe her? Has she seared your eyes with her loveliness?"
"She hasn't seared my eyes. She has only opened them. Listen to me, you thing of mud! She is just a little brown streak."
"That's an odd description of a woman."
"It's the correct one, though. She's just a little brown streak of a thing."
"Well, I've heard of a man in love with a dream, and in love with a shadow, but never before did I hear of one infatuated with a streak. Where did you meet this creature? Have you known her long?"
"Only for a month or so, and but slightly. We have not met half a dozen times. It was only tonight, you see, that I began to know her well. We talked together, and I got a glimpse of her real self—of her slender little body, of her earthly tenement, of course, I had an idea before. She is a lissom thing, with eyes like wells, and with a way to her which conveys the idea of wisdom without wickedness, and which makes a man wish he were not what he is, and were more fitted to associate with her."
"That's one good effect, anyhow. I don't know of any man who more needed to meet such a woman. How long do you expect this influence to last?"
"Longer than one of your good resolutions, my son; as long as she will have anything to do with me."
"Does this brown streak of a saint live in the city? Is her shrine easy of access? What are you going to do about it?"
"She's not a saint; she's a piquant, cultivated woman; but she is different, somehow, from any other I've ever met."
"You've met a good many, my boy."
His face fell a little.
"Yes," he said, "and I almost wish it were different; but the past is not all there is of being. There's a heap of comfort in that."
"Cupid has thumped you with his bird-bolt, certainly. Why, man, you don't mean to say that you're in earnest—that you are really stricken; that this promises to be something unlike all other heart or head troubles with you?"
"I am inclined to believe that the gravest diagnosis is the correct one."
"But how about the present Mrs. Harlson?"
No friend less close than I could have asked such a question. I almost repented it myself, when I noted the look which came upon the man's face after its utterance.
I suppose such a look might come to one in prison, who, in the midst of some pleasant fancy, has forgotten his surroundings, and is awakened to reason and suddenly to a perception again of the grim walls about him, and of his helplessness and, maybe, hopelessness. Harlson left the mantel against which he bad been leaning, and walked about the room for a moment or two before speaking.
"It's true," he said, "I am certainly a married man. The law allows it, and the court awards it, as things are in this society, bound by the tapes of Justice Shallow and the rest. I entered into a contract which was a mistake on the part of two people. They discovered their error, and rectified it as far as they could. Had they been two men or two women who had gone into ordinary business together, and subsequently discovered they were not fitted for a partnership, the law would have assisted cheerfully in their absolute separation. But with this, the gravest of all contracts, the one most affecting human welfare, no such kindness of the statutes may exist. Some of the churches say the contract is a sacrament, though the shepherd kings, whose story is our Bible, had no such thought, nor was it taught by the lowly Nazarene; but the law supports the legend, within certain limits. What are we going to do about it?"
I told him that I didn't know, and there were several thousand people—good people—in the city facing the same conundrum.
I called attention to the fact that the conventional band was a strong one at this time, and could not be burst without a penalty, even by the shrewdest. The dwarfs were so many that, united, they were stronger than any Gulliver. And I added that, in my opinion, as a mere layman, he was very well off; that he had been at least relieved of the great, continued trouble which follows a mismating, and that it would be time enough for him to chafe at the light chain still restraining him, when he was sure he wanted to replace it by another.
"It's not your fashion," I said, "to fret over the morrow, and it is my personal and profound conviction that you have no more real idea of marrying again than you have of volunteering in the service of the Akhoond of Swat—if there be an Akhoond of Swat at present. You're only wandering mentally to-night, my boy, dreaming, because this wisp of a young woman of whom you have been telling has turned your brain for the time. You'll be wiser in the morning."
All this I said with much lofty arrogance, and a great assumption of knowing all, and of being a competent adviser of a friend in trouble, but, at heart, I knew that, in Harlson's place, I should not have shown any particular degree of self-control. I have never felt the thing, but it must be grinding to occupy a position like that of this man I was addressing. The serving out of a society sentence must be a test of grit.
We dropped the discussion of the problem, and Harlson referred to it again but incidentally.
"The fact is," said he, "I had almost forgotten that I was not as free as other men. I have not regulated my course by my real condition. I've drifted, and there have been happenings, as you know well. There's Mrs. Gorse. I've never concealed anything. Those who know me at all well know my relationships, but I imagine that I have been deceiving myself. I am not a free agent—though I will be. It's not right as it is."
"And when am I to see this woman who has interested you, and restored the old colors to the rainbow? You will allow me to admire her, I suppose, if only from a distance?"
"Oh, yes! Come with me to the Laffins' to-morrow night. She'll be there, I learned, and I said I was going to be there too. Come with me. Of course, you understand that if she smiles on you at all, or if you appear to have produced a favorable impression upon her, I shall assassinate you on our way home."
I told him that I thought my general appearance and style of conversation would preserve me from the danger, and that I would take the risk and accompany him.
The next night I met Jean Cornish. We were destined to become very well acquainted.
Only a little brown woman she. Man of the world and profligate he, Hard and conscienceless, cynical, yet, Somehow, when he and the woman met, He learned what other there is in life Than passion-feeding and careless strife. There came resolve and a sense of shame, For she made as his motto but "Faith and fame."
The world is foolish: we cover truth; We're barred by the gates that we built in youth. Two were they surely, and two might stay, But she turned him into the better way; His thoughts were purified even when He chafed and raged at the might-have-been; He learned that living is not a whim, For the soul in her entered into him.
He fights, as others, to win or fall, And the spell of the Woman is over all. Bravely they battle in their degree, For—"The woman I love shall be proud of me!" And the man and woman, the one in heart, May be buried together or hurled apart, But the strong will battle in his degree, For—"The woman I love shall be proud of me!"
There were men and women, and music and flowers, and some of the people had intelligence, and I drifted about at the Laffins' party, and rather enjoyed myself. Of course I wanted to see the woman a fancy for whom had gripped Harlson so hardly. I had forgotten about her until, with a pleasant and clever person upon my arm, I had found something to eat and had come upstairs again, and released her to another. I wandered into an adjacent room, and there ran upon Harlson among a group. I was presented to Miss Cornish.
I do not know how to describe a woman. This one, whom I have known better than any other woman in the world, is most difficult of all for me to picture. She stood there, not uninterested altogether, for, no doubt, Harlson had been telling her already of his closest friend, his lieutenant in many things, and I had an opportunity to study her with all closeness as we exchanged the commonplaces. I understood, when I saw her, how it was that he had referred to her so absurdly as a little brown streak of a thing. Little she was, assuredly, and brown, and so slender, that his simile was not bad, but the brownness and the slenderness were by no means all there was noticeable of her. She was not imposing, this woman, but she was not commonplace. Supple of figure she was, and there were the big eyes this stricken friend of mine had told me of, and rather pronounced eyebrows, and her lips were full and red, and there was that fullness of the chin, or, rather, the vague dream or hint or vision of a daintily double chin at fifty, which means so much, but the forehead was what a woman's should be, and the glance of the eyes was clean and pure, though, in a clever woman's way, observant and comprehensive. It was a cultivated and fascinating woman whom I met.